October 27, 2015 at 2:15 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
U.S. ambassador to Chile praises gay colleagues

Michael Hammer, Chile, gay news, Washington Blade

U.S. Ambassador to Chile Michael Hammer at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, Chile. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

SANTIAGO, Chile — U.S. Ambassador to Chile Michael Hammer told the Washington Blade during an interview last week that the U.S. continues to show global leadership in the promotion of LGBT rights.

Hammer noted during an Oct. 22 interview at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago that six openly gay ambassadors currently represent the country overseas in the Dominican Republic, Spain and Andorra, Denmark, Vietnam, Australia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“This is a giant leap forward in terms of making a statement that LGBT folks are just as qualified and just as able to be wonderful representatives of the United States,” Hammer told the Blade.

Hammer conceded that U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James “Wally” Brewster “initially faced some pretty ugly reactions” from Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez of the Archdiocese of Santo Domingo and others in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

“The United States stands first on important values, equal rights being among them,” Hammer told the Blade.

Hammer also noted the State Department’s efforts to “ensure” same-sex partners have equal rights within the Foreign Service. He declined to specifically comment on the decision to no longer offer domestic partner benefits to unmarried gay couples.

“The State Department’s been working hard to get to the appropriate place,” said Hammer, responding to the Blade’s question about the aforementioned benefits. “In doing so we’re providing leadership and by having openly gay ambassadors serving makes it very clear where the United States stands. The fact we have very successful ambassadors in this group is again further validation that it’s not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do.”

Chile’s leadership on global LGBT issues ‘remarkable’

Hammer, 51, grew up in Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela, El Salvador and Brazil.

He joined the Foreign Service in 1988 and has been posted to Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Bolivia. Hammer was the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs from March 2012 through August 2013.

President Obama in June 2013 nominated Hammer to become the next U.S. ambassador to Chile.

Hammer described Chile’s leadership on global LGBT issues to the Blade as “quite remarkable.”

Chile co-sponsored a resolution against anti-LGBT violence and discrimination that the U.N. Human Rights Council ratified in September 2014. The South American country, along with the U.S., in August co-hosted the first-ever LGBT-specific U.N. Security Council meeting that focused on the Islamic State’s persecution of Syrian and Iraqi men accused of committing sodomy.

Chile last November became the first Latin American country to join the Global Equality Fund, a public-private partnership designed to promote LGBT rights around the world that the State Department manages with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Special U.S. Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons Randy Berry in June traveled to Santiago where he met with Chilean advocates and embassy staffers.

“Before I arrived (in Chile) I heard a lot about a very conservative society (that is) predominantly Catholic,” Hammer told the Blade. “In terms of the issue of LGBT rights and equality they were much more progressive than I anticipated them being.”

Hammer spoke with the Blade on the same day Chile’s law that allows same-sex couples to enter into civil unions took effect.

“We’re marking that historic moment,” he said. “That’s not to say that it hasn’t been a very long struggle.”

Hammer told the Blade that the March 2012 murder of Daniel Zamudio — who was attacked by a group of self-described neo-Nazis in a Santiago park because he was gay — “galvanized” Chilean LGBT rights advocates and the country’s politicians.

Then-President Sebastián Piñera in the summer of 2012 signed an LGBT-inclusive hate crimes and anti-discrimination bill — known as the Zamudio Law — that had languished in the Chilean Congress for seven years. A measure that would allow trans people in the South American country to legally change their name and sex without sex-reassignment surgery remains in front of lawmakers.

Chile, gay news, Washington Blade

The Chilean Presidential Palace in Santiago, Chile. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

President Michelle Bachelet publicly supports both the trans rights bill and marriage rights for same-sex couples. Labor Minister Javier Blanco and Chile’s Ambassador to the U.N. Cristián Barros Melet marched alongside Hammer in Santiago’s annual Pride march that took place one day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Obergefell case that same-sex couples have the right to marry throughout the United States.

“There was euphoria there and a lot of love I have to say for the United States among the people that were there,” Hammer told the Blade.

Hammer nevertheless said the Chilean government acknowledges LGBT Chileans continue to face inequality and discrimination.

“They have obviously, with the civil unions, made a very important step,” he said. “They have work to do…the government talks about the need for work to be done.”

Chilean LGBT group receives $22,782 grant from U.S.

The embassy in August gave Fundación Iguales, a Chilean LGBT advocacy group, a $22,782 grant to support what Hammer described as “civil society efforts to protect the rights of transgender people.”

Hammer told the Blade that the feedback he receives from Chileans about the embassy’s work in support of LGBT rights has been “overwhelmingly” positive. He conceded some of the comments on the embassy’s Facebook are nevertheless “just uncomfortable to read.”

“No institution or political party or group has come and protested to us as an embassy or to me as an ambassador,” said Hammer. “Publicly it’s been more a question of supporting and applauding our support for this effort.”

Hammer was among the officials who attended an annual thanksgiving Mass known as “Te Deum” on Sept. 18 that coincides with Chile’s Independence Day.

Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, the archbishop of Santiago, presided over the annual event that took place roughly a week after a Chilean newspaper published a series of private emails between him and his predecessor, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, that show they conspired to block a gay man’s nomination to a papal sex abuse commission.

Juan Carlos Cruz, a U.S. citizen living in Philadelphia, is among the hundreds of people who Rev. Fernando Karadima sexually abused over more than three decades at a Santiago church. Hammer noted that Ezzati issued a “mea culpa” during the Mass over the way “some of the things were reported” in relation to the leaked emails.

“It’s not an issue we’ve become involved in,” Hammer told the Blade. “We follow it in a sense because you also learn from the reaction of people to these emails…it’s one of outrage generally.”

The Blade interviewed Hammer as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the House Benghazi Committee about the 2012 attack that left then-U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead.

“Anytime something like this happens you get shaken by it,” said Hammer, who worked with Clinton at the time the attack against the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi took place. “There’s a great deal of hurt associated with that.”

“Everybody that I know of, and certainly that serves as an ambassador takes very seriously their responsibilities to keep their people and Americans safe,” he added. “Yet on occasion we have to be doing work that, again, is dangerous. We understand that risk.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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